Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(2000’s | therapese | “uncomfortable in one’s own skin,” “genderbending,” “confused”)

When I mentioned to some friends that my next blog post would cover “transgender,” I added that the word seemed fraught with contention over its meaning and appropriateness. They all replied that they thought the meaning was pretty well settled. At this point in history, they are probably right. GLAAD,, and Planned Parenthood all generally agree on the definition of “transgender” and rule that it is not the same as “transsexual.” Broadly speaking, a “transgender” person wishes to be the opposite gender of that suggested by his or her physical characteristics; a “transsexual” (note that many people object to using “transgender” as a noun, or the adjective “transgendered,” but “transsexual” can be either) is someone who does something about it, anything from merely trying to pass to full-blown SRS (that’s “sex reassignment surgery,” or a sex-change operation). In more contemporary terms, if your gender expression (how you present yourself) conflicts with or fails to match your gender identity (what the doctor said when you were born), you’re transgender. The “what the doctor said” part is significant, because in principle your gender is assigned to you — the expectations following you around about how you ought to behave were set before you had any say in the matter.

The language gets tricky because many of us have very deep and strong — some would say built-in — feelings about men and women. How you know who’s who, how people ought to look, dress, talk, etc. Many people still take traditional gender roles seriously; ambiguity makes them nervous, occasionally violent. But a few of us just never feel right acting out the roles, or rules, established for us. To take an oversimplified hypothetical example: you have a penis, but you feel like, or wish you were, a girl. I’ve never felt that way myself, so I can only imagine how it feels to struggle with something so elemental, so profound. What I can’t imagine is being casual about the question. If you really feel like you’re stuck in the wrong body, it must be wrenching, with terrible mental and emotional pressure (here is one impassioned and painful story). Using language to attack someone in such straits becomes a great cruelty, a luxury born of thoughtless and unexamined assumptions about who we really are.

Another reason language gets controversial has more to do with the fact that transgender people themselves, who presumably ought to be called what they want, can’t afford to take lightly the terms others use to describe them. What people call you may be hazardous to your health. It also inevitably assigns you to a particular group, which also may be hazardous to your health. Under these high-stakes circumstances, the words we choose will undergo a lot of scrutiny, and it’s not surprising that some people don’t want to be called “transgender” or “transsexual” (generally recognized as old-fashioned, though not actually objectionable, since a significant number of people continue to prefer it). While it was acceptable at one time to use “transsexual” to mean what we would now call “transgender,” it’s much less so now and likely will not be at all in another generation.

“Transgender” appeared only in clinical and therapeutic circles in the seventies. “Transsexual” was already in general use then, usually to refer to those who had taken steps to alter their bodies to match their preferred gender. Now we have a whole slew of new words that a generation of increasingly complex sexual politics has pushed into the language. I’ll pause here over two of the newer ones: “cisgender” (meaning something like “normal” — that is, feeling o.k. about the gender expectations society has placed on you) and “genderqueer” (generally an adjective, as far as I can tell) meaning something like objecting to any gender assignment at all. Remember “It’s Pat” on Saturday Night Live? It’s more than having a uterus but feeling like a boy — you don’t want to be pinned down as a boy or girl, period. I can’t guess how commonplace these words will become, but they are coming to a neighborhood near you.

I mustn’t fail to mention gender-neutral pronouns, but I’ll stand back and let others do the work. Here are four nice links I found in about 30 seconds on Google. Can’t go wrong with an Oxford University Press blog post. How about an entire blog devoted to the subject? Still not satisfied? Here’s another. Had enough commentary already? Here’s a handy (if incomplete) chart.

Before I sign off, I must direct your attention to an essay that is not only of great linguistic interest, but is probably the best blog post I have ever read anywhere, on any subject. While discussing the fissile nature of terminology and communities, the author engages a central political question: To what extent is the ability of large numbers of people to unite behind a common term for themselves a necessary precondition for gaining the power to change society? Is it possible to improve your lot if everybody in the group spends all their time arguing about what to call themselves, and who’s justified in stereotyping whom? Would the gay community have been as successful if most of its members hadn’t united behind descriptive terms that allowed them to focus on their shared goals rather than all the things they disagreed about?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: